Whether you dream all night, every night, or just once in a while, our sleepy-time stories can be all kinds of entertaining and weirdly bizarre – with the ability to transport us to another fantastical world. They’re actually quite fun, huh?
But have you ever wondered why you dream and what it all means? Today, we chat to Naturalmat’s resident sleep expert Christabel Majendie, about dreams, nightmares and night terrors (not so fun), to find out.
What do dreams mean?
Long before Sigmund Freud claimed that dreams were a window to the unconscious mind, people have being trying to interpret them and work out exactly what they mean. However, while the content your dream can probably be traced back to a connection in your real life, it seems unlikely that dreams contain universal symbols with meaning attached to them.
The real reason we dream is still not totally clear, but it seems to be connected to memory consolidation and organisation, learning, problem solving and creative thinking. Dreaming sleep also appears to be important in sorting out meaningful information collected during the day from events which are not important, y’know all that random stuff.
During dreaming sleep, our brains are very active with brain scans indicating enhanced activity similar to an awake brain. Brain areas involved in the processing of emotions are very active along with the areas involved in visual imagery. This explains why dreams tend to be very vivid and emotionally charged. Areas of the brain involved in self-awareness and executing control show reduced activity and this is probably why we normally can’t control our dreams, or why we act of out character in them.
Your preferred sleep position may affect your dreams, with one study finding that stomach sleepers described their dreams as more intense, vivid and erotic. This is likely to be due to increased physical pressure on parts of the body, which can create body feelings that source dream elements.
So, does everyone dream?
Everyone dreams every night, mainly occurring during a type of sleep call Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM sleep). As we dream our eyeballs move around rapidly, whilst all other muscles (except those involved in breathing) are paralysed, so we don’t act out the dream and cause injury to ourselves or others. REM-sleep behavior disorder occurs when the body fails to induce this muscle paralysis and the individual acts out the dream. This is different to sleep walking which occurs during deep sleep.
Adults spend between a fifth and a quarter of sleep time in REM sleep, although not everyone remembers their dreams. You are more likely to remember a dream if you wake in the middle of one or just after one, then write it down or describe it.
What about nightmares?
Dreams are mostly fun, albeit a bit bonkers, but nightmares can be a recurring problem which disturbs sleep and is, frankly, terrifying. If this is happening, try re-orientating yourself when you wake up by reminding yourself where you are. Talk to yourself out loud and use all your senses to describe what you can see (with the lights down low), hear, smell and touch to bring you back to the present moment. When you experience a nightmare, you may wake up detached from real time and space so by grounding yourself in the present you can reduce feelings of fear and anxiety associated with the dream.
If you experience recurring nightmares, a suggestion is to write down details of the unpleasant dream the following day then change it to make it less frightening or even turn it into a comedy. Visualise your altered dream throughout the day. Evidence shows this technique can reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors are not the same as nightmares as they occur during deep sleep not during REM sleep. They are actually classed as part of a group of sleep disorders called Parasomnias, which also include sleep-walking. Night terrors are most common in children, although they may still occur less frequently in adults. Although someone experiencing a night terror may appear to be awake with eyes open, body movements and speech, after the event most people show poor or no memory of it occurring.
Night terrors can last up to 15 minutes and can be very distressing for anyone witnessing them. They are thought to be linked to being overtired or sleep-deprived and are also associated with feelings of stress, worry or excitement.
All about sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis can occur in some people just before dropping off to sleep or during waking and may last for seconds or several minutes. The main symptom, as described by the name, is the inability to move the body. This can be accompanied by visual hallucinations or hearing sounds and voices that are not part of reality. Often an episode of sleep paralysis may also involve an experience of intense pressure on the chest which can result in shortness of breath. Sleep paralysis can be very anxiety inducing although it is a harmless occurrence. It is related to the normal process of muscle paralysis which occurs during REM sleep.
As with night terrors, sleep paralysis is more common if you are sleep deprived or during periods of increased stress. So the clear message is, don’t cut back on your sleep, manage your stress and make your bedroom a sleep-promoting environment.
This dream is a classic. You’re falling and then you suddenly wake as you supposedly hit the ground. Falling dreams signify insecurity and anxiety about something in your life, maybe you’re having problems at work, with a friend or perhaps you’re worrying about something?
Running away from something in your dream often means you’re running from something in real life. Are you in a relationship that you don’t want to be in? Or in a job that doesn’t fulfill you? The action of running away suggests it’s how you cope with day to day stress. Perhaps build up the courage to stop running and confront the fear.
Teeth falling out...
One of the more disturbing dreams is that of our teeth randomly falling out one by one for no apparent reason. It’s believed that these dreams reflect anxieties about your appearance or perhaps how others see you. It can also relate to being powerless, as having no teeth makes you unable to speak properly, eat or bite, so perhaps something is making you feel powerless or uneasy in your life?
Many people dream of wanting to fly but being unable to and this usually means that you’re looking to make a change in your life but can’t quite seem to make the leap to do it. If you’re experiencing this type of dream, perhaps look at your life and what you feel is holding you back from reaching your full potential.
This is quite a common dream for women, and much like the falling dream, you might wake up suddenly gasping for air. Drowning can usually mean that you’re in a situation in your life that is suffocating you. Many people who have experienced this dream have said to feel suffocated at work, under pressure or sinking under a heavy workload.